EVERY year thousands of British victims are ripped off by online scammers.
But while they may lose thousands of pounds through crypto fraud, some swindlers are paying a higher price – with their lives.
Criminal gangs are trafficking Chinese and south-east Asian nationals into Cambodia to work in ‘scammer compounds' where they are beaten, starved and even electrocuted if they fail to make their gang masters enough cash.
Imprisoned in huge dormitories with iron bars at the windows, they are forced to work 14 hours a day conning victims across the world – including those in the UK.
Horrific images from a BBC Three documentary called The Pig Butchering Romance Scam show workers being beaten with sticks and attacked with tasers while their hands are cuffed.
One escapee is filmed looking skeletal in hospital hours before death after being thrown out of a compound for getting sick.
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'Pig butchering' scam
Living conditions have been described as a “living hell” by the United Nations.
The scam describes victims as pigs and involves ‘fattening’ them by slowly building up trust before moving in for the kill.
The gangs trick their victims by building up relationships then persuade them to make small crypto investments which make a paid return – before stealing subsequent sums.
One victim told how she handed over $2.5 million (£2.1 million) to a scammer who befriended her when she had just discovered she had terminal cancer.
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American Cindy said the conman named Jimmy initially contacted her on WhatsApp asking if she worked in a pet shop.
When she said he had the wrong person, he began asked about her Chinese heritage, saying he too hailed from China
She said: “On top of my health problems my marriage of 16 years was pretty much done. I was the most vulnerable I’d been in my entire life.
“Jimmy was a lonely man in need of comfort and a lot of immigrants, a lot of us, feel a bit of loneliness.
"I called my best friend Emily and she knew I was having day-to-day conversations with this guy."
Cindy, who lives in Boston, Massachusetts, initially invested less than $20,000 and was pleased when she made cash on it.
She said: "Jimmy said he would show me what to trade and how to trade but he wouldn't touch a dime.So I said okay, why not.
"When he mentioned 'don't you want to leave more money to your children, that was a definite hook on my part.
"He said to go on this website and open up an account. The first amount, less than $20k, made a couple of thousand dollars."
But after investing more and more Cindy found herself unable to withdraw any of her money.
The documentary tracked down 'Jimmy' whose pictures belonged to an innocent influencer in South Korea.
Looking at the images, Cindy said: "I'm holding my breath. It's like a trigger. I now have some semblance of PTSD."
In Britain there is no data on pig-butchering but nationally crypto fraud rose 72 per cent in 2022 to more than £329million.
Those who work in scam factories are promised jobs but held at gunpoint and trafficked mainly to the city of Sihanoukville in Cambodia, where documentary-makers say casinos serve as a front for criminal activities.
An investigation by the Observer and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in January found that gangs are using the UK to set up rogue crypto bases – with around half likely to be linked to ‘pig-butchering’.
An empty shop in Croydon, a flat above a Chinese takeaway and a council flat in an east London tower block were among the 168 firms linked to fraud. The majority of directors are based in China.
One UK victim, Sam*, a 46-year-old mechanical engineer, lost £54,000 in the pig scam in December 2021.
Sam, who had split from his wife and was suffering from cancer, was tricked by a woman called ‘Jessica’ – a New York-based woman in her 30s who messaged him on Instagram.
He said: “People will say, ‘What an idiot. How did you fall for this?’. But at the time I thought this person was genuine, and because I wasn’t in a great emotional space, I fell for it”
He became suspicious after handing over a second lot of cash to Jessica.
When she asked for more he became suspicious and a reverse Google search image confirmed her pictures were skimmed from the social media of a Japanese model.
He confronted her and was blocked on WhatsApp. When he checked his cryptocurrency wallet the balance was zero.
Three of us came to Cambodia. One disappeared, the other was shot eight times
“I went into the bathroom and just stared at the mirror for about half an hour,” he said.
Another victim Toby*, 32, told the Bureau how he was conned out of £115,000 by a woman he met on dating app Hinge.
They were due to have their first date at a restaurant in Ilford, east London, when he got a message telling him not to go and warning him not to transfer any more money.
It read:“Everything is fake. Your funds … have found their way into the pockets of scammers.”
“I don’t want to do [this]. I’m forced to work in a criminal group. I’m secretly sending this to you.”
Bruised, battered & killed
An ex-gang boss on the BBC show tells how he was taken to Cambodia with two other men.
He chillingly says: “Three of us came to Cambodia. One disappeared, the other was shot eight times and died.”
Showing pictures of his bruised and battered body after being beaten for asking for a pay rise, he says: “Breaking company rules is serious. If you’re lucky you won’t be able to get out of bed for a couple of weeks. Or worse you could suffer a broken arm or leg. The company hires thugs to do it.”
He described how he came up with a ‘scam manual’ to hit vulnerable victims on social media, saying: “All women have so-called mother’s love, especially when she’s been hurt emotionally. We make up a heartbreak story to trigger mother’s love.
“You have no idea how brilliant these scammers can be. If I’m pretending to be a superstar I could be him… there’s specific software to do this.”
The documentary also follows an imprisoned scammer called Didi who manages to escape from a compound in Sihanoukville with help from a special unit in Singapore.
Talking from inside the giant complex where he was held, he whispers: “Every day here feels like an entire day.
“Someone in my team made a mistake today. He was beaten up in front of everyone then dragged out of the office. It’s upsetting to see this, I don’t know if I’ll be next.”
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The Pig Butchering Romance Scam is available to view on iPlayer now
*Not their real names.
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